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Paris2024: Reshaping or destroying the Olympics?

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 10 May 07:03 PDT 11 May 2018
Giles Scott (GBR) after winning the Gold Medal in that soon to be extinct species, the Mens Heavyweight Single hander © Richard Gladwell

Later this week World Sailing holds it Mid-Year Meeting in London.

The Mid-Year is usually akin to a "morning-after party" - which considers the leftover matters from the previous November's Annual Conference. It also the stage for the next Annual Conference, where the key issues are hammered out and decisions made.

One pundit has labelled this year Mid-Year Meeting as the most important in 50 years. Most informed observers would agree with that comment.

The build-up has been like watching the Titanic set course for the iceberg. In this case, the iceberg is the huge silent mass of club and international sailors, who have a high personal investment in the sport.

Already the fans have sounded a warning siren with two online petitions wanting the Review stopped. The two petitions have attracted 35,000 signatures between them. An Open Letter signed by six Olympic Medalists has also been widely circulated ahead of appearing as a two-page colour spread in the authoritative Seahorse magazine.

To see and sign the latest petition click here

In short, World Sailing appears to be acting contrary to the expressed wishes of competitive sailors.

The body now known as World Sailing has been around since 1907 - just over a decade after Pierre de Coubertin founded the Modern Olympics. It was on the 1906 Olympics and has been contest at every Olympics since.

Sailing, as an Olympic sport, reached a peak medal count in 2004/08 with 11 classes events, but that was an accommodation to re-include the Star keelboat. Since 1992 the Sailing Olympics has remained static at 10 events.

The Annual Conference, held in the November following an Olympic regatta, was the bunfight of the quadrennium as classes lobbied for inclusion and others fought equally hard for retention within those ten slots.

In bygone years, occasionally the governing body, exasperated at trying to run an orderly selection process has opted instead to run a "Miss Olympic Popularity" contest, conducting a preferential voting system until the right number of classes each received a 50% majority vote. Then it was a simple matter to concoct event names to go with the selected classes. As a system it got the right boats into the Olympics, and what's in an event name anyway?

The cyclors get a taste of the Great Sound - race 5, Day 1 -America's Cup 2017, May 27, 2017 Great Sound Bermuda - photo © Richard Gladwell <a target=www.photosport.co.nz" />
Two of the cyclors on board the current America's Cup champion have crossed over to the Finn class and will bring some of the America's Cup lustre to the Olympics. But 2020 could be the swansong for the classic Olympic Singlehander - photo © Richard Gladwell www.photosport.co.nz

There have been attempts to try and bring some order to the madness. But no selection system has been used twice. Even when Trials were held pitching the pretenders against the current Olympic boat, the clear on the water winner still had to unseat the incumbent in the November meeting. Sometimes they had the numbers - sometimes not.

Since 2010 the class selection cycle has been stretched out to six years from the previous four - which is why in 2018, we are selecting the classes for the Paris 2024 and its Olympic regatta venue of Marseille.

The novel process adopted for the 2024 Olympic events selection is a combination of policy and regulation. Last November last the Council agreed to set some policy criteria on event selection and those morphed into regulations - six pages of legalese explained by a further 20 pages of FAQ's for the benefit of the easily confused.

Unintended consequences

Few of the policy wonks appear to have thought ahead as to the possible outcomes of this process, which is expected to have several unintended consequences - along with those which are clearly intended by the report from World Sailing's 2024 Events & Equipment Working Party.

A question which will have to be answered very early in the Mid-Year Meeting is whether: "Man is made to serve the Regulations, or are the Regulations made to serve Man?"

To read the joint Working Party's full report click here.

This year the usual selection shenanigans are overlaid by the vexed issue of exact gender equality. There is also the perceived need to satisfy the International Olympic Committee who want to keep the biggest sporting show on Earth appealing to Generations X, Y and Z.

If there is wholesale change, the so-called emerging sailing nations, stand to get caught with small ex-Olympic class fleets. Unless they vote en bloc they scarcely have a voice in the process dominated by the various European blocs. In the Submissions that have been received, only a few of the emerging nations have bothered to state their preference. And those that have participated generally opt for a minimum of change

The Gender dilemma in Sailing is that the sport has 10 Olympic events currently split into four for women, five for men and one mixed. That gives male sailors 16 medals with 13 medals for womens events. In percentage terms that is a 55%/45% split for medals, or just a 5% shift to achieve the IOC's Agenda2020 recommendation for 50% female participation. Mixed team events are encouraged, but they don’t affect the gender accounting.

It is not an adjustment that warrants the response of massive changes to the 2024 Olympic Sailing program.

In Rio 211 men and 163 females competed - six shy of the allowed 380 maximum for Sailing. With the introduction of five new sports that had to fit under the IOC’s participation cap of 10,500 athletes, eight sports had their athlete numbers reduced. The 2020 Olympic Sailing Regatta has been cut to 350 sailors, or 175 men and 175 women.

Clearly some juggling of numbers needs to take place - with women picking up 12 spots across all classes. The men have to drop 36 spots from Rio to get equality of participation at a new lower level.

Over the Top

The 2014 announcement of the IOC’s Agenda2020 and the whispered dire penalties for a sport that does not meet the recommendations of the owners of the five ring circus, have been a gift for World Sailing's scaremongers and their agendas who have used the opportunity set the scene for massive and unnecessary change.

That included selecting five of the ten Olympic Sailing events for Review. A further two Events and four classes are being investigated for compliance with European Anti-Trust regulations, which can, in theory, be extended world-wide.

A Working Party was set up to evaluate the five Events in the first Review. They will make recommendations on the various options which will be decided by World Sailing's Council on May 14 and 15. To the frustration of many, World Sailing’s governing body has a reputation for rejecting recommendations from the Events Committee.

Next, in November 2018, World Sailing's Committees and Council will select classes that fit those events selected this week, and if new classes are required then trails will take place over the following 12 months. A final decision on the Events and Classes for Marseille will be made by World Sailing's governing body in November 2019.

A second Anti-Trust review will look at four Olympic events and classes being the Laser and Laser Radial and the Mens and Womens RS:X - any of those can also be changed out depending on the outcome of the review. The RS:X is on both the Anti-Trust and Event/Class Review lists. The decision on what happens following that Review will also be considered in November 2018 - and if there are changes to be made, then further trials will be held for new classes.

If World Sailing's governing body accepts the recommendations of the Working Party, then World Sailing could be holding trials in up to five events. Previously World Sailing has struggled to hold one or two sets of trials for new classes, per year, so five is going to be a massive stretch of resources and process.

Anyone who has even been just on the periphery of class selection trials knows they are very fraught and rarely fair.

They usually raise more questions than answers - particularly when manufacturers break the rules of the trial, or turn up with so-called production boats that keep breaking down.

Holding trials in Europe and UK works against the rest of the world - both in getting sailors on the test teams and entering boats. Setting a date for the trial is fraught - for the simple reason that if the wind fails to perform as bid, then the trial has to be packed up - and those involved have to return at some later date in the hope of a spread of conditions across the wind range.

That's relatively easy for the Europeans to manage, and difficult for anyone else.

Of course builders are expected to carry the costs of the trial in the expectation of a bonanza if they are successful, and have the booby prize of a hefty tax write-off if they are not.

Safe from the event-fiddlers are the 49er and 49erFX classes which escape any review completely in this cycle. The Nacra 17 has already had an effective review with the change from a partial foiler to a full foiler straight after the 2016 Olympic Regatta - which meant new boats for all serious competitors.

Four Mixed Events?

For reasons best known to itself, World Sailing decided that there needed to be 2-4 Mixed events. Quite why that is a requirement when, except for Equestrian and Shooting, only nine of 28 Sports will have single Mixed events. So why does Sailing suddenly need four, or even two?

To get some perspective on what is really required to meet the requirements of the IOC’s Agenda2020, look over the fence at two other Olympic boat sports - Rowing and Canoeing.

No wholesale changes there. Not a Mixed event in sight.

Their World bodies just split their competitor allocation down the middle to get the 50/50 gender split, and then set up the events. In Rowing’s case, crews will compete in sculling or sweep oared racing in a range of boats from singles through to eights - all over a 2,000 metre six-lane course. A men’s lightweight rowing event got dropped (but one still retained). The women gained an event - the Coxless Four. There are seven matched events on either side of the Rowing program for Tokyo2020 – which is now gender equal in terms of numbers of athletes, and equal in medal opportunity.

Canoeing did much the same - but with some variation in course length.

There was none of Sailing’s angst about media image, having to bring in Mixed team events, relays, rowing off a beach, ocean racing and having to appeal to Generation X, Y and Z.

From a media perspective, how boring could an event be where they all row boats that look the same? They race over a single straight line course of the same length - and the rowers all face backwards?

Rowing also got its numbers cut by 24 (compared to Sailing's cut of 30), but are still at a hefty 526 rowers for 2020 with 14 events, compared to Sailing with 350 sailors in 10 events.

Oh, and you can bring your own blades, boats and other gear. There’s no single exclusive manufacturer, supplied gear or the sort of nonsense that is accepted as de rigeur in Olympic Sailing.

Publication of Agenda2020 by the International Olympic Committee four years ago created a few minor ripples amongst the sailing community, but on face value the changes required were minimal - like Rowing and Canoeing.

Agenda2020 was a great opportunity for the scaremongers who quickly used it along with supposed insights and whisperings from the IOC to create that fictional work Sailing's Agenda 2024.

The party line seems to be that unless Sailing over-complied with IOC's perceived requirements/view of the sport, and changed to more contemporary events favoured by Generation X,Y and Z then further athlete cuts could be expected in Olympic Sailing along with Medals/Events being removed and allocated elsewhere. Achieving gender balance was a given for all sports, unless there was a good reason for a discrepancy.

IOC sets record straight

A letter on IOC letterhead sent a month before the World Sailing Conference last year made it plain that each International Federation will retain independence in making proposals on Olympic event programs and athlete quotas. "The IOC has not and will not dictate changes to the programme nor specific events for inclusion or exclusion", the letter said.

The President of World Sailing echoed the IOC's missive in a media statement issued a couple of weeks ago: "In debates around the sailing world, it has been mentioned that the IOC is demanding change. I must say that this is not the case. The review of Olympic events is motivated by our own World Sailing Regulations, however, the IOC Agenda 2020 should be seen as a source of inspiration and guidance."

Given those two statements why is there the need to put five Olympic Sailing events on the bonfire?

The reduction in athlete places from 380 in Rio 2016 to 350 in Paris 2024, should come as a surprise to no-one. It is not a black mark against Sailing as we have been led to believe. Nor is it a portent of more to come.

In the run up to Rio 2016, several sailing nations rejected their Olympic spots that had been won through the Qualification system in place for the Rio Olympics.

In addition, several of the places allocated to the five regions of World Sailing and intended for use by the so-called emerging countries were not taken up.

In total there were 41 rejected/unused spots which World Sailing tried to re-allocate just weeks before the start of the regatta - being 16 spots in men's events and 25 spots in women's events. The places were all taken after reallocation, but it will not have gone unnoticed by the IOC that under Sailing’s contested qualification system there were 41 excess places. Against that statistic, Sailing can consider itself to have escaped lightly with the loss of just 30 places.

As an aside, New Zealand was the worst of the countries to reject places releasing three event spots won in the first round of qualification at the 2014 combined World Championships. Canada was in the same league refusing to select in three events, Australia refused to select in two events.

On the water at Rio the lowered standard in the fleets because of the rejected places is quite apparent to the IOC with there being a long tail evident in some fleets. It is not a good look, and must be an exasperating situation for World Sailing.

Big investment ignored

The possibility that five classes and events could be changed out was presented as the opportunity seek major changes in the 2024 Olympic Regatta. In the Working Party’s report on the Event options, there appears to be scant regard for the consequences on the investment in existing Olympic fleets and by Youth sailors on the Olympic pathways.

The Events Review has been seen as the green light for some very lateral thinking. There were approximately 65 Submissions received on Sailing's Agenda 2024- from the 140 sailing nations, and 100 Class Associations that makeup World Sailing.

The Working Party set up by World Sailing to bring some semblance of order to the 65 submissions tried to undertake some data analysis to determine the relative popularity of various options.

That is a flawed process as the European and Baltic nations were over-represented in the Submissions. Many of the emerging nations did not lodge a Submission at all. Neither did two of the leading Olympic sailing nations - New Zealand and Australia. The Chair of the Events Committee lodged six submissions on the issue of Olympic events.

Suggestions for new events included offshore keelboats, kiteboarding, team racing, relay racing and other make-up events to tart up the image of the Olympic Sailing Regatta. Surprisingly no-one suggested a foiling egg and spoon race.

Natalia Kosinska training with China's RS:X Olympic representatives, Takapuna, March 31 2016 - photo © Richard Gladwell <a target=www.photosport.co.nz" />
One of New Zealand's three competitors successful in the first round of 2016 Olympic Qualification but rejected as not being "medal capable" six months later trains with China's RS:X Olympic representatives, Takapuna, March 31 2016 - photo © Richard Gladwell www.photosport.co.nz

The Working Party report is a scene setter for the replacement of all of the classes under Event Review.

It is hard to take seriously the Working Parties analysis of media appeal of the events present and future.

Stepping outside the Olympics and looking at the 12 Metre class, they were oft-criticized up to 1983 as being boring and like watching paint dry. But four years later come Fremantle that same boring 12 Metre turned in a magnificent display and produced some of the best video and still images ever seen in the sport.

What makes a good media profile for sailing is to have it conducted in venues with good breezes and with a bit of sea running, and production staff who understand sailing. Every class has to be shot differently. With slower boats, you get good tight shots of the racing with multiple boats in the frame, or close-ups of the sailors. Faster boats are more forgiving. It's the stage on which the performance takes place is more important than the speed of the boat.

Foiling doesn't make for better images, other than the initial "wow" factor, and non-foiling boats generally make better images for a whole bunch of reasons.

Bye bye to +85kg males

The losers in the Working Party's report are the average weight men the so called heavyweight men.

They get dismissed with two sentences in a 42 page report - "The WP recognises that there may be some athletes at the extreme ends of the size range for the current Olympic events that could find they do not have a suitable option for 2024. This issue is particularly acute for men over 90kgs."

That weight is probably nearer the 83-85kg mark which embraces a big percentage of the male population.

The Finn is an easy target in the Report scoring the lowest possible ranking in each of the categories of Universality, Innovation, Media, and Appeal for the Youth and Non-Sailor.

Tom Ashley - Qingdao RS:X Medal Race - photo © Richard Gladwell <a target=www.photosport.co.nz" />
Qingdao was a light air venue for the first half of the Olympic Regatta and the RS:X coped well in the light airs and flat seas - photo © Richard Gladwell www.photosport.co.nz
Clearly, the Working Party believes there is no longer a place in the Sailing Agenda 2024 World for the Elvstroms, Ainslies, Percys, Coutts and many more Finn sailors who have gone on to become icons of the sport.

From a media perspective, several sailors from the last America's Cup have easily made the transition from the wingsailed foiling catamarans back to the heavyweight Mens singlehander.

Having the stars from the America's Cup, Volvo Ocean Race and other high profile events followed by sailing and non-sailing fans does lift the image of the sport and that event specifically.

Losing a Classic Event

Dropping the Finn means that the sole remaining classic event in Olympic sailing will be gone. The Finn is the equivalent of Athletic's marathon, 1500 metres or 100 metres.

In the Working Party Report, it is not just the Finn which gets the skates put under it. None of the five current Olympic classes under review score particularly well except in the factor of Universality where the 470 gets a 3/5 and the RS:X a 4/5 ranking.

The Report spends just a couple of pages generally putting the boot into the five classes under review. The it spends 10 pages lauding the options and potential for the Events that could take the place of the five under review.

The Report is enthusiastic in its ranking of the two new windsurfing options and also the three kiteboard events with rankings of 4/5 and 5/5 being awarded across the factors of Universality, Innovation, Media Value and Youth/Non-Sailor Appeal.

To give a complete picture the Working Party also ranks the "non-review" classes which are ranked between the 470, Finn and RS:X Windsurfer and the options for the new windsurfing and kiteboard options. Amazingly the 49er only rates a 3/5 score for Media. On this factor the Laser is ranked on par with the Finn at just 1/5.

The offshore keelboat sailed in an marathon format rates above the non-review group (49er, Nacra, and Laser) but below the new Kiteboards and Windsurfer.

The report calls for the keelboat supplier to provide a minimum of two boats at six training bases to be set up around the world (one in each continent) with a further base at the 2024 Olympic venue with six boats available for training. There is no mention of how to address the imbalance of the state-funded programs buying their own boats and setting up programs to compete again the "have-nots".

There's plenty of thinking gone into how the new events could work, but none as to how the existing classes under review and their events could be improved. For sailors in those classes with substantial Olympic investment, that is the least they deserve.

The bottom line is that with current limitation of 10 events and one Mixed Event it is not possible to achieve an exact 50/50 gender split, without excluding males above 85kg from the Olympic regatta.

(As an aside, the weights of 49er sailors Peter Burling, Blair Tuke, Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen are 82kg, 77kg, 75kg and 80kg respectively - well below the 90kg cut-off identified in the report. Over 80% of the current top 50 of Finn sailors are above 90kg. No data or analysis is contained in the report of body weights of current Olympic sailors to ensure that a significant group is not being excluded.)

Boosting Womens sailing

Another point overlooked in the Report is that the current Mixed event does nothing to lift the image of Women's sailing outside the Olympics.

If World Sailing were serious about promoting women's sailing in the wider sense, then it would mandated that the Mixed Multihull must be helmed by a female sailor.

In the Nacra 17 event at Rio, just three of the 20 entries (15%) were helmed by women. Only one of the top ten overall had a female helm.

What is the point of bringing in an additional Mixed class just to reinforce this stereotype?

In the context of an America's Cup and other foiling events how much more credibility would an aspiring female have is she, like her male counterparts had won an Olympic Gold (or any other colour) medal as the helm of a foiling catamaran?

The Working party calls for one more Mixed events, and the World Sailing President calls for four of the ten events to be for Mixed crews.

As long as female sailors are primarily in crew roles in the Mixed classes then little will be achieved other than putting a satisfied smile of the face of the gender accountants.

The fundamental issue facing the Mid Year Meeting is that the Olympic slate cannot be arranged to have gender equality without changing several and staying within a count of 10 medal events.

The policy wonks will insist on policies and regulations being followed, But the outcome of that dogma will is usually some unintended consequences, which will set off a retrieval process – the same as happened in May 2012 when the Windsurfer event was dropped to be replaced by Kiteboards. After an intense lobbying effort the decision was reversed in November 2012.

A couple of options

Although it is outside the policies and regulations, one option is to drop the Mixed Multihull in which case a gender-balanced event slate can be developed within the 10 events currently allocated.

The slate also has the same look as the other two boat sports and is a balanced slate as follows:

One Design Single Hander (M&W) - Laser Radial
Open Single Hander (M&W) - Finn (Men), Foiling Moth (Women)
Windsurfer (M&W) - RS:X
Open Two Hander (M&W) - 470
Skiff (M&W) - 49er (Men), 49erFX (Women)

Another option, and probably within the regulations is to adopt the Submission from Israel and Cyprus (M67-18) , which calls for the Mixed Multihull to be dropped and turned into a Womens Two Handed Multihull – using either the foiling or non foiling version of the Nacra 17.

That also achieves Gender balance while retaining the investment in the current fleet pathways and Olympic programs.

The venue options and possibilities are canvased in the Working Party Report for the new events - Kiteboarding, Windsurfing and Offshore Keelboat.

For anyone who has been to an Olympic Regatta, It is reasonably clear that Kiteboards and Windsurfers of the type under discussion would not be able to sail out of the Olympic Marina, and need a beach.

There is no indication in the Report as to whether any Kiteboarding or Windsurfer events would be flatwater regatta racing as now, with the RS:X, or if they would be judged events.

Taking four of the ten events for the Kiteboard/Windsurfer would leave only six sailing events to be sailed from the Sailing venue. As a consequence the overall impact of the Olympic Sailing event would be reduced.

There is no cost reduction by moving some events out of the Sailing Marina. Usually, the sailing is held out of an existing marina, as at Weymouth and Rio. Or there is a new facility as in Qingdao and Barcelona which is designed to have legacy use after the Olympics.

Welcome to the Beach Hub

As a hypothetical exercise running the so-called “Beach Hub” from a nearby beach for Kiteboarding and Windsurfing at the last three Olympic venues reveals that the Sailing venue would be split.

At the Rio Olympics, while there was a white sand beach a few minutes’ walk from the sailing venue launching and racing off the beach would have been possible on only a few days of the regatta. The area off the beach had the most polluted water of the courses and was notorious for fickle winds and windshifts.

Best option was Copacabana Beach about 10kms away - but a horrendous drive in the Olympic traffic. Similarly, with Weymouth in 2012 with a beach about 10km away from the Sailing venue. In 2008 at Qingdao, there was a beach across the bay from the Sailing venue, only about 5kms on the map - but walking was probably the fastest route even after negotiating the humourless and rigid Chinese security.

The point is that while the distances in a split-venue may appear to be quite short, once you step outside the bubble of the Sailing Olympic venue nothing ever happens quickly. Plus from a media perspective there can only be one Mixed Zone where the TV, radio, newspaper and online media interviews take place just after racing, and good as they may be, most journalists can't be in two places at once, and their deadlines are such that they don't have the time to spent in transition between two venues.

Given that Surfing is now an Olympic sport with just one Shortboard event for men and women, the Kiteboards and Windsurfers would be better working out of that location and make a bigger impact.

How long Sailing would survive in the Olympics as a five or six event Sport is another matter.

And that is an outcome which those who make up sailing’s governing body could well ponder before doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons in London this weekend.

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